What do you say when a student asks a tough question? Four words that can transform your conversations with teenagers?
You know the one.
The question that catches you off guard in the hallway just as you’re stepping into youth group. The one that comes by text around 11PM just as you’re shutting down your phone to collapse in bed. Or the question right at the end of Bible study when you really don’t have time or energy to entertain it.
The good news is that these questions are actually voiced. In our Sticky Faith research, we learned that about seventy percent of students in ministries like yours have big questions about God and faith. Unfortunately, only about a quarter of them say anything to anyone. That means a lot of big questions remain quiet.
And as it turns out, our data suggests it’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith. It’s silence.
So take heart when you get that hard question. You’re a trusted safe place for a teenager to share something real. Our research also shows that those who feel safe to share in their youth ministries tend to have stronger faith after high school.
With that in mind, here are three things you can say to that student before you even respond to the question itself:
- First, other teenagers and adults ask these kinds of questions all the time.
- Second, it’s not only okay to ask hard questions, but it’s actually important—some say essential—for your faith journey.
- And finally, God can handle it. God isn’t anxious about your questions, struggles, or doubt. I don’t think you should be either. So thanks for asking.
When you’re caught off guard, sometimes you need to defer a response until later. But if you can affirm the student with those three points, they’re going to feel heard and cared for, and that can buy you some time to think (and maybe study and pray) through a more specific response when you follow up.
Ever been in a conversation with a teenager where you weren’t sure what to say next?
Maybe it was because of a surprising statement or shocking word choice. Maybe it was because you suddenly heard a secret, something incredible or something tragic. Or Maybe it was because you got hit with a hard question.
Over on the YS Blog we shared three things you can say when you aren’t quite sure how to respond. When faced with tough—and real—questions, most of the time we need to “put pastoral care before apologetics.”
Our friend Andrew Zirschky at the Center for Youth Ministry Training urges based on his own research, “If we are going to respond adequately to the doubting experiences of youth, we need to ensure that young people … have patient, understanding companions who can guide and care for them through the twists and turns of the journey of doubt.”
So with that theme of companionship in mind, here are the four words we think every parent, leader, and mentor should keep handy in their back pocket for moments like these:
“I don’t know, but …”
There are a handful of great ways to complete that sentence.
I don’t know, but …
… that’s an important question.
… let’s find out.
… I wonder that, too.
… I bet you’re not the first person to ask that.
… who do you think we could ask about that?
… I wonder what stirred up that question just now?
… God can handle that question.
… thanks for sharing it with me.
You might, of course, have an answer to the question. But even if you do, it might be wise to step back and probe a bit before unleashing your “right” answer. It might turn out that being heard is more important than the answer itself, at least at the moment.